I hadn't originally tended to blog about this, but it has been rattling round in my head so I figured I'd bring it up despite the article being a week and a half old. The New York Times has an article on a Chinese ministry which is proposing a law requiring children to regularly visit their elderly parents. I don't really think this law has a chance of succeeding, states have never been successful at enforcing these types of social policies simply through enforcement measures and punishments (altering incentives is a different kettle of fish, but not why I brought the topic up).
So, as far as the law itself goes, this is little other than a curious footnote about a changing China. But I believe it illustrates a very important point about social evolution, and in particular, that it is still happening in the modern world. Filial piety is a very old Chinese virtue with a centuries long past. However, modern social pressures threaten it, even when state collapse, invasion, and Communist rule, with all its efforts to break down other social bonds, didn't succeed.
At the root of this change, I believe, are the simple forces of the market. These types of social bonds have dissolved throughout the developed world, something akin to the need to care for grandparents would have been familiar in the days of America's founding or in Europe in times contemporary to that. But over the last century these mores have decline wherever markets have grown in strength and come to define greater areas of our lives. This is fully consistent with everything else I've read on historical social development, markets tend to dissolve and disrupt most of the social bonds that tie together households and communities. This particular case in China illustrates another particular hypothesis I have, that further market integration dissolves a progressively greater number of these bonds. China used to be one of the most heavily marketized societies before the industrial revolution took markets to breathtaking new levels, yet, confronted with new and unprecedented levels of market influence, even bonds that had formerly defied market pressures are dissolving. The simple ineradicable logic of labor markets, mobility, individual autonomy, individual responsibility for success or failure in the market, and the transition from agrarian to urban life makes traditional Chinese filial piety an unsustainable social custom that diverges too far from market values to persist in modern China.
This isn't meant to be an argument against markets, markets I believe are on the whole good. However, they do have a cost to them. This cost is one of the primary areas where I part ways with modern conservatives and libertarians. Their view of society holds up as an ideal a society that contains both the thick social bonds of household and community that characterized the past with strong markets whose forces are allowed to operate largely unchecked in order to generate great wealth. I regard these as mutually exclusionary goals. The stronger markets become the more the bonds that hold together communities* will be dissolved and the less force they will exert on social life. Their idea of strong communities replacing the role of governments in a market economy is something I view as an impossibility and don't see evidence of in the historical record, markets win every time, though it may take a generation or two to allow the reward of market values over traditional values to work its effect. Trying to impute to government the socially corrosive role doesn't seem to get sequencing right in most cases, government steps in to fill social roles that communities previously filled once the market has broken up the bonds of community and the public is demanding that someone do something, not before. Evidence of this would take some time to go into, but I think the Chinese case is a nice modern example of this process. I do also recognize that my theory is mutually exclusive with that of libertarians, if I am right their ideal society cannot work, if they are right, I am advocating hurtful and unnecessary policies.
*There are of course exceptions within societies that don't work this way, I've read about some groups in Africa and American Mormons may fit this category as well. Discussing this at length would take a book, suffice it to note that I do agree that groups that can maintain strong identities and resist the fracturing tendencies of markets enjoy a number of powerful advantage in markets against others that don't share these qualities. However, I don't believe this can be applied to a society as a whole, with a possible exception for small states that can define themselves relative to larger which isn't an option in the US, since I think it involves strong in-group out-group identifications and the ability to exclude members that don't conform, which isn't an option for the United States as a whole.